Thursday, 29 November 2012

Roman Steelyard Weights — Swinging the Lead

We find a lot of lead don't we, us detectorists? Found outside the tight confines of a single period site it's very hard to put a finger on what most of it means. Even when what is found has form — it's in the shape of something recognisable — then without marking of some sort, it's still difficult to separate the items into date ranges. Spindle whorls and steelyard weights if undecorated look much the same, period for period, because the form is basic and fundamentally the same whatever time or place they were made. Find either in the middle of nowhere and no-one is going to believe you when you say 'it's Roman.'

Steelyard weights are probably the easier of the two though. The Romans used them a lot in their trading and most, but not all, are quite easy to spot for what they are because they are almost always the same shape and that's biconical. They will have an iron loop at one or either end but more usually only the remains of them.

Above is a selection of weights found on a Roman site I used to search. It was a large farm or villa and about ten acres in extent and except for modern trash hardly a thing was ever found there of any other date so confusion about lead items and their date was non-existent.

Most of the ground was thin as you'd expect on a country estate, but here and there were discreet areas where it was abundantly clear that something went on in the past. One area of only thirty or forty yards in diameter produced all the weights above and immediately adjacent was an overlapping area which produced mostly 2nd century coinage. I read this as a trading area in two parts; one where goods were weighed and sacked up and another where the money changed hands, which makes perfect sense.

Of the eight weights found six were steelyard weights whilst the two large ones are a builders plumb bob which is 70mm long and weighs an ounce over an imperial pound and the smaller one with a hole through it, probably a loom weight. Only one of the steelyard weights is made of bronze that would have weighed about two imperial ounces with its iron loops intact and it has a flat bottomed globular form, but all the rest are biconical. The small fragment of bronze with a suspension loop is part of the balance arm the weights were hung from.

The coins found were all large bronzes and denarii of the 2nd century excepting two, a copper as of the 1st century and a silver antoninianus of Elagabalus of the 3rd, both of which may have been lost before and after the trading area ceased to exist.

Unfortunately I never found any trace of whatever it was that was traded, so in the absence of proof I'd say the general run of everyday victuals and provisions — grain, apples, hides, hay, meat, the bread, and the butter — the very things that wouldn't leave any traces behind for us to draw conclusions from, except for the lack of them, which may tell us enough.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent and informative post on an artefact not fully understood by many detectorists and often discarded.